Friday, December 23, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #8

Many high-profile athletes are held in high esteem largely because of their fame and the vicarious glow their fans attain as they bask in their "hero's" accomplishments. They're honored, admired and judged to be "groundbreakers" simply because of the physical feats they're able to perform.

While not unworthy of respect, most also aren't so unique that they're rightfully qualified to be placed in a "special" category. They win. They lose. Their "unbreakable" records are broken. Life goes on, and their footsteps gradually disappear from the landscape. Occasionally, some sports stars ARE inspirational, and a few are even courageous under certain personal circumstances. Still fewer have the type of long-range societal influence as someone such as, say, Arthur Ashe. In this day and age of been-there, done-that disposable instant gratification, one's tempted to say the likes of that importance will never appear again. After all, we are just talking about sports, right?

But not so fast, Vegemite breath (sorry, just getting ready for Oz)... for in 2005 we all met the "Indian Princess." And she may just be the real deal.


Certainly not, right? Surely that many people know a star when they see one, and women's tennis has become a virtual breeding ground for them in the internet age, from Kournikova to Hantuchova to Sharapova... and, now, to teenage Indian sensation Sania Mirza. But the 19-year old is not your everyday #4-ranked athlete on the Yahoo! Buzz meter. She's much more intriguing than that. In fact, she's the very definition of the word.

Back home in India, Mirza's an unquestioned superstar of the highest order. Like a movie queen, she enlists bodyguards for crowd control. Her image is ever-present in ads and she's lent a hand to all sorts of goodwill endeavors, such as the "Save the Child" campaign which seeks equal treatment of girls and boys in Indian society. She's a big personality in a nation chocked full of people.

But that's not all.

As a practicing Muslim, she's a walking contradiction in a religion that traditionally places women in subjective roles. Thus, a young female athlete whose profession virtually requires her to wear "revealing" short sleeves and skirts in public is an easy target for fundamentalist groups and ultra-orthodox clerics to knock down as a "corrupting influence" on the nation's youth. And they have, as fatwahs have been issued against her, her image burned in effigy, and her comments on topics such as teen sex not unexpectedly misconstrued and protested in a violent fashion. It's all a bit more than a teen tennis star should have to endure, but such is the situation Mirza finds herself in as a "voice of a generation," with so many hanging on every word out of the mouth of the "new face" of young Muslim women in sports, as well as society in general. And what a face it is. Undeniably camera-friendly, Mirza is indeed a supernova (lowercase "s") when it comes to Sharapova-style endorsement contracts back home (and likely elsewhere very soon).

She'd be a curious novelty if she were just your "average" Indian teenager, not able to harbor widespread influence but sure to rankle those just outside her immediate inner circle. On a personal level, it's fairly clear she has a certain "it" factor. And she carries it over to the court. Oh, that's right... I almost forgot, she's pretty adept with a tennis racket in her hand, too. That's what makes her even more intriguing -- she's a big personality with an equally big shot.

Which brings us to the other side of the Princess Sania story.

Backspin wouldn't even be talking about Mirza at all if, to be blunt, she didn't hit the snot out of a tennis ball with the best of them, as she showed in spurts during matches with the likes of Sharapova and Serena Williams last year. In 2004, she led the ITF circuit in singles titles (winning a weekly "Fresh Face" award in Week 42), then began '05 by advancing to the 3rd Round of the Australian Open, a first for an Indian woman. By the end of the year, she'd risen from #206 to #31 (the biggest jump of any Top 50 player last season), became the first Indian woman to win a WTA singles title (at her hometown tournament in Hyderabad, where it was theorized in these parts that we might be witnessing the birth of an "Indian Supernova"), then became a true worldwide star during the first week of the U.S. Open by reaching the Round of 16 and entertaining everyone with her piercing honesty, numerous piercings (her prominent nose ring being one of several) and cheeky slogan-bearing t-shirts ("Well-behaved women rarely make history" being one of the more telling examples).

But is her game good enough to climb a tennis ladder loaded with Russians and Czechs and veterans (oh, my!)? Well, while she's as hard-hitting as anyone, her game is on the one-dimensional side (think Jelena Dokic, circa 1999-00 before her game hit a wall, and then her life followed suit). Against Sharapova in the U.S. Open last September, Mirza was somewhat out of her league against the "original 'Nova." Barring injury, she's probably good enough to reach the Top 20 even without a "Plan B" on matchday, but she might be able to one day reach the Top 10 if she makes the right decisions regarding her coaching and training, and doesn't let the whirlwind that surrounds her accomplishments and controversies overwhelm her concentration. Needless to say, it was a good sign that Mirza followed up her breakthrough season by going out and forging a relationship with Tony Roche, a man who's offered his assistance to no less than the likes of Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer (who've combined to be ranked #1 for a total of 370 weeks -- that's over seven years -- during their careers). It says a great deal about where the Indian Princess wants to go... and her decision-making process when it comes to getting there.

So far so good. Now comes the balancing act.

Mirza will continue to break down barriers and do her own small (and large) part in cultivating a better understanding between the Muslim faith and the rest of the world, while hopefully helping to unite the sometimes fiercely opposing viewpoints within Islam inside her own nation, as well. But her tennis is her ticket. Her toil and sweat is the price of her admission into any "real world" discussion. The sport has presented Mirza with a huge platform on which to enact her own brand of change within her society, but she should never let that fact either cloud or solely guide her judgment or actions. Her athletic talents have given her the chance to be so much more than just a tennis player, and her accomplishments on the court will only give added weight and shine more attention on whatever honorable civic endeavors she might undertake down the line. So she needs to keep her wits about her and nurture that talent. It can only lead to good things for many people, not the least of which is a certain Princess.

She's just a girl, really... but one with a big opportunity to leave footsteps that won't disappear from the landscape for quite some time.

Who knows exactly down which path Mirza's career will ultimately go. Will she forever be a big personality with a big shot, or a big-time player with an equally large personality? Will we always look at her, squint real hard, and still see Dokic (minus the maniacal dad, but with the maniacal clerics a few more piercings and a more openly visible sense of the bizarre)? Or will she draft an even more intriguing conclusion to her own story, even more unique than the chapters that have already been written? Truthfully, Mirza is young enough that things could go either way... and 2006 will be an important year for her. This season will be a learning one for the Princess. One in which she'll have to learn to modify her game to move beyond her shear ability to whack the ball around the court, learn to withstand the new pressure that she'll face due to her new and higher expectations, and learn to finesse (and maybe even avoid?) the various controversies that will surely pop up along the way.

Mirza is no Dokic (her stable family situation provides her with a support system that won't germinate Debutante-style calamity), but she's no Sharapova, either. She's Princess Sania, not a future #1 nor probably a consistent Top 10 threat, but a player who could spend a good portion of a long and prosperous career in the Top 20, giving her all the potency of influence she'd need to foster change both within and outside of the Indian and Muslim communities in which she was raised.

And that's not such a bad prospect.

So, apparently, sometimes physically-gifted groundbreakers can be inspirational. I guess 1,000,000,000 Indian fans can't be wrong.

1.Mirza will claim two more singles titles in 2006
2.She'll match her career-best Round of 16 slam result, maybe more than once
3.At least one win will come over a Top 5 player...
4. ...and she'll spend the final months of the season edging in and out of the Top 20. In eleven months, Mirza's tennis future will look even brighter than it does right now.
5.Plus, she'll learn to watch her tongue (a little), but won't lose her refreshing personal honesty (hmmm... maybe she can talk to Sesil about a few things, too, huh?)

All for now.


NEXT: Has Steffi's successor finally been indentified?


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